Truth is bitter, says an African adage, but it must be told. And that was what the American ambassador to Nigeria, W. Stuart Symington, did when he addressed guests on the occasion of his country’s 242th independence anniversary, marked in Lagos recently.
Instead of talking on core diplomatic matters between the United States government and the Nigerian government, he chose to speak on an unusual but important topic: ‘Mentoring’ as a tool for national development and growth. His choice of topic immediately put a challenge to the government and people of Nigeria, a country blessed with abundant human and natural resources but which cannot cater adequately for its citizens.
And what was Symington’s message? Summarily put, Nigerians must imbibe the culture of mentoring. He asked Nigerians and foreigners resident in the country to get involve and look “beyond their families, beyond those who speak their language or come from their part of the country, for some other people who desperately need a mentor.”
Symington gave the advice at a time when the Federal Government and Nigerians as a whole were overwhelmed by socio-economic and political crises. It was also at a time when Nigeria counted among African countries topping the chart of migrants who embarked on the perilous journey through the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara desert to Europe in search of greener pastures, not minding the death toll reported daily.
But what would make an American diplomat to admonish Nigerians on mentoring? The envoy has a good working knowledge of the country and must have reasoned that the teeming population of Nigerian youths could do better if granted the benefit of mentoring.
After all, the problems of leadership, poor economy, unemployment, youth restiveness, insurgency and kidnapping for money could be reduced if youths of today are well prepared for tomorrow. The youth must be guided if they must become good and resourceful leaders.
Therefore, Symington wants the Nigerian ship to “move forward in the direction that takes Nigeria to the port that Nigeria has to reach.” The envoy believes that through mentoring, Nigeria can “profoundly change” and indeed “impact positively on the world.”
Apparently warning against procrastination, he implored Nigerians to start the mentoring immediately, “2018 is the year to do it, not 2019, not 2020. This is not the year to talk about what you are going to do or who is going to fix what. This is the year to do it. And the only people in the world who can do this are you.”
Mentoring at the national level could be an enormous task. But the envoy has done his homework and believes it can be done if the people are willing to take up the challenge.
Thus, he was quick to draw the attention of his audience to the objectives of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme. He believes the programme is also an ‘estate’ for producing mentors. “Every year in Nigeria, as one of the fruits of the nation after the civil war 50 years ago, Nigeria has to do something to come together. So, every year, every college graduate in Nigeria does the National Youth Service.
“So, if each one of those men and women of the last five years became a mentor, we will be a quarter away from 10 million mentors.” How about other members of the public? Symington did not exclude anybody from the exercise: “You have a lot of diplomats and public servants, Nigerians and foreigners,
at the federal, state and local levels. If all of
us became a mentor to somebody who was not in our family, we would almost be 10 million.”
The envoy was emphatic when he said: “If those companies and those people who have been brought together tonight by faith, and by hope, and by the love of freedom, if those companies mentor their own staff, and few other people, there will not be a lot of more people looking for a better way to make a living. You will lift Nigeria up.”
Already, the US Embassy has commenced a mentoring programme online. According to the envoy, it is “an online African Initiative Network. This is an online mentoring community with 170,000 people. So, everybody who is online becomes a mentor.”
He was confident when he said if each of the 170,000 people online mentored 10 people, the world would change.
But was Symington day-dreaming when he mounted the rostrum only to spend the evening appealing to Nigerians to imbibe the culture of mentoring?
Certainly no. That was the response from two prominent Nigerians who were not at the event but are strong advocates for a new national orientation that could make Nigerians, particularly the youth, to become more committed to values that promote national cohesion, peace and development.
Former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Dr. Obadiah Mailafia, noted that “mentoring of the younger ones remains a major problem in our Nigerian leadership culture.”
He aptly explained what mentoring means when he said: “Within the Igbo artisanal industry, mentoring has been carried to a very impressible level. We are always impressed to see a young Igbo mechanic being groomed, trained and mentored by an experienced mechanic who takes him under his arms. After undergoing the necessary training and discipline, for perhaps five years, the young man is allowed to go and set up on his own. He is even given some capital for start-up.”
Continuing, Mailafia said it was “unfortunate” that “this culture” has not been “replicated in political leadership and in the corporate world.” How does he mean? He explained thus: “In terms of political leadership, identifying young talents and mentoring them is of crucial importance.”
He gave the example of Britain, where “working within the party bureaucracy, young politically ambitious men such as former Prime Minister Tony Blair and others served time and learned the ropes. Others served as special assistants to ministers or members of parliament.”
The ex-CBN deputy governor also cited the example of China, saying: “In China, they have an elaborate mentoring system right through the hierarchy of the Communist Party. They are tested with responsibility and promoted as they progress.”
Mailafia wants Nigerians to know that “mentoring in politics,” for example, “helps to avoid too many shocks in leadership changes. The Chinese always know five years ahead who the next leader will be.” On how Nigerians can imbibe the culture of mentoring, he said, “to enhance the mentoring culture in Nigeria, those in positions of responsibility should make conscious efforts to identify young talents and invest in their future.”
Using political parties as an example, he noted that, “the youth wings of political parties should be seen as a training ground and recruitment centre for young talents. Such talents abound in Nigeria. The fact that we are not mentoring them is regrettable.”
On his part, Kunle Ade Wahab, Professor Emeritus, Obafemi Awolowo University, and former Special Adviser on Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence to ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, said, from his personal experience on mentoring, “there is no Mr. Know it all. That is what all of us should bear in mind. We are all thinkers, though many of us do not think positively or otherwise.”
It is on record that Wahab pioneered the department of Estate Management of the university. Today, the department has expanded to become the Faculty of Environmental Design and Management. His singular effort has produced no fewer than 70 professors. Thus he is a shining example of a mentor.
He said, “Mentoring simply means to guide the students to a specific goal and end and let them kick off from there independently. It is like when a carpenter trains the would-be carpenter. Mentoring is a central focus of trying to imbibe in younger ones, mostly from the elder person to younger ones, how to proceed in life.
“It could be in marriage, church, Koranic programme, trying to teach people before they go on retirement what they are going to face, making them to understand that
the luxury of getting salary at the end of the month is no longer there. You have to make them understand that their pension may not be adequate to help them survive, so they have to think of additional means of getting extra income. So, mentoring is trying to imbibe in the individual what will better his or her life in future.”
Asked how mentoring can be effective in Nigeria, Wahab said, “We should have a structured programme, we should have a package where we have a curriculum, for example, on entrepreneurship, in the institutions of learning, even if it has to be for one semester, or one or two hours lecture in a semester during which students will be told how not to rely only on books, their course work and certificates. The students must be made to understand that they might need to do some other things upon graduation.
“They should be made to think of how to augment their salary so that, when they go on retirement, they may not live below standard.”
He also suggested that civic studies should be taught in schools “to continuously expose our young ones to how to make their life better, to rely on their hands.”
Interestingly, the National Orientation Agency (NOA) is “tasked with communicating government policy, staying abreast of public opinion, and promoting patriotism, national unity, and development of Nigerian society.” Has the agency lived to the expectation of Nigerians with respect to mentoring programmes?
Wahab has advice for the agency. He said some of the issues he has talked about are what the agency should be doing. He wants the NOA to reach out to institutions of learning across the country and hold discussions with the students year-in, year-out. He said mentoring is not a one-way traffic, as nobody knows it all: “I have learnt a lot of things from my students, it is not just one-way traffic.”
He noted that multiple professorship in a department helps to widen students’ knowledge.
“It was the Americans that started this idea of multiple professorships in a department. The Americans believe that there can be as many professors as the number of students, everybody specialising in their own area, unlike years before when the British believed you could only have one professor in a department. And some of us have benefited on a multiple sphere rather than waiting until a professor dies before somebody else can become a professor.
“So, the officials of the NOA should widen their net to cover as many areas as possible in the country so that our students can benefit,” he said.